Parent-teacher conferences are one of the most useful tools that we have as parents to ensure our children are getting the most from their education. But as helpful as they are, they can be downright stressful for everyone involved. Parents want to get the lowdown on how their children are doing, and teachers want to make sure they communicate everything a parent needs to know about their teaching style and how the child is performing in school — all in a 15-minute block of time.
With so much to cover in such a short amount of time, we asked experienced educators for their thoughts on what parents can do to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences.
The goal of parent-teacher conferences
Chris McDonald, a Massachusetts elementary school teacher of 26 years, says that parents and teachers have similar aims when it comes to conferences.
“The parents should be looking to gain insight into how the day goes for their child while they’re in the school building and away from them,” McDonald says. “How are they doing with the academic work? How are they doing socially with the other children? How are they feeling emotionally?”
“And for the teacher, it’s similar,” McDonald continues. “I want to gain insight into how things are going for them at home when they’re away from me because it helps me to understand their child better. Are the parents divorced? How does the child spend their nights? What do they like to do outside of school? Are they feeling good emotionally at home?”
The ultimate goal for both parents and teachers should be to get a well-rounded understanding of what is happening with the child in their day-to-day life because it informs how they end up performing academically.
Questions to ask at a parent-teacher conference
Building a healthy partnership with your child’s teacher can make all the difference in his school experience, so you’ll want to make sure you’re asking the right questions when you meet.
We asked McDonald, Debbie Shiabu, executive director of the Association of Private Schools, Anne Davis, education contributor for the parenting blog We Know Stuff, and Justin Baeder, director of The Principal Center, to give us their advice on exactly what to discuss at your next parent-teacher conference.
Ask and answer questions about your child’s life
1. May I tell you about my child?
No one knows your child better than you do, so it’s your job to help your child’s teacher learn more.
“Provide your child’s teacher with more information on what motivates your child, likes and dislikes, special skills, strengths and weaknesses,” Shiabu says.
McDonald agrees that this is the most important thing a parent can communicate to their child’s teacher. “I can do a better job of helping your child learn if I understand them better,” he says.
2. May I tell you about what’s going on at home?
Situations like illness, divorce or a new baby may affect your child’s school experience, so inform your child’s teacher of such circumstances.
“Even knowing if the child goes to one home on certain days and another home on other days can be helpful,” McDonald says.
If home life circumstances change dramatically in between conferences, be sure to drop your child’s teacher a note to let them know.
3. How is my child doing socially?
According to Davis, the way the child functions socially in the class is a topic that should be addressed at a conference, so inquire about your child’s peer relations. A child’s social development is just as important as their academic development, and your child’s teacher will have made useful observations they can share with you.
“Parents don’t always think to ask, but it’s important to know if your child interacts well with the other children,” McDonald says. “Are they a good friend? Do they help out if another student is struggling?”
These are all important skills that go into measuring a child’s overall development.
4. How is my child doing emotionally?
It’s important to ask about your child’s emotional health at school. For example, is your child generally happy? Are there certain times of the day when your child seems stressed out or agitated?
McDonald says, in one case, she suggested to a parent that her child bring a small snack to school because the child seemed to be having trouble every morning after a couple hours of work, and she wondered if it was a low blood sugar issue. Once the child had a snack he could grab during that time, he was able to refocus on their work more easily and his overall performance improved dramatically.
Ask about your child’s academic performance
5. What are my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses?
Your child’s teacher sees your child from a different perspective than you do. Ask the teacher what personal weaknesses your child needs to work on, and listen to the response with an open mind. Ask about their strengths, as well, so you can encourage them to continue doing good work.
McDonald says parents often have higher academic expectations for children than the teacher does, particularly early on in the year, so getting the teacher’s perspective can be eye-opening.
6. Is my child performing on grade level?
At a conference, parents should expect to see examples of their child’s work. Baeder says parents should ask “how this compares to grade-level expectations, but don’t try to compare your child to other students.” Each child is different and has different strengths and learning abilities.
McDonald stresses that teachers will absolutely let parents know if they are concerned that a child is falling below grade level, so this isn’t something to get too hung up on unnecessarily. The most important thing here is to know if your child’s performance is where it should be, and your child’s teacher will be able to tell you that definitively.
7. What do academic performance assessments mean?
When it comes to standardized testing and other assessment results, Baeder tells parents, “Don’t feel bad about asking ‘What does this really mean?’ Increasingly, assessments are given for school-level progress-monitoring purposes, and it’s best not to get too worked up about precisely interpreting every detail.”
In other words, what is typically being graded by the standardized testing is the school itself, not your child specifically.
8. Does my child need extra help in any areas?
Your child’s teacher can tell you if your child is falling behind in a skill or a subject, like math or English. Armed with that information, you can create a plan with your child to work harder in that area before it’s too late.
“Work with your child’s teacher to create a plan to help your child progress well in school,” Shiabu says.
Questions to ask if your child is having trouble in school
9. May I share a concern?
If you’re worried about a situation at school, bring it up with the teacher.
“The worst thing parents can do is just wait and wait and wait,” Davis says.
Teachers usually appreciate when parents bring an issue to their attention, as long as it’s done with respect. For example, if you’re concerned about the amount of time your child is spending on their homework, this is the time to open the discussion with their teacher. Teachers and parents all have the same goal: to do what they can to ensure that the children have a successful school year.
“If you’re concerned about it, it’s probably something I’m thinking about, too,” McDonald says.
10. Can you fill me in on a particular situation?
When your child has complaints about what’s going on at school, Baeder advises parents to ask for clarification from the teacher, as often your child’s side is the only side you’ve heard.
This can include anything from a peer-to-peer issue or a teacher that your child is having trouble with. If you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere after the conference, contact the principal or dean of students with specific situations.
End with these important questions
11. How can I help at home to support what you’re doing in the classroom?
Davis suggests that parents ask, “What can I do to support you in the classroom?”
There might be supplies you can purchase, prep work you can do at home or skill practice you can work into your child’s routine at home.
McDonald agrees that this is one of the most important questions a parent can ask. “I wish every parent would ask what they can do at home to help their child,” he says. “When parents are more involved, the children tend to struggle less.”
12. What’s the best way to communicate with you?
Teachers have a lot of students and parents trying to talk to them during any given school day, so it’s important to get an understanding of how they prefer to communicate. Some teachers prefer email, phone or face-to-face while others may use a school communication app such as ClassDojo or Remind. Find out which method your child’s teacher prefers so that you can communicate questions or concerns to them in the best way.